Philippines, China commit to diplomacy in standoff

April 11, 2012 - 5:36 PM
Philippines South China Sea

In this April 10, 2012 released by the Philippine Navy, Filipino naval personnel look at giant clam shells on board a Chinese fishing vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, near the Philippines. The Philippine government said Wednesday it agreed with China to diplomatically resolve a tense standoff involving a Philippine warship and two Chinese surveillance vessels in the disputed South China Sea, the most dangerous confrontation between the sides in recent years. The Philippine government said the standoff began when its navy tried to detain Chinese boats fishing in its waters, but was stopped by two Chinese surveillance craft. (AP Photo/Philippine Navy)

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines and China agreed to resolve an ongoing naval standoff diplomatically, but neither side was ready to back down Wednesday in the most dangerous confrontation in the disputed South China Sea in years.

Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario said he warned Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing that the Philippines would defend itself if provoked. At their meeting, both insisted the Scarborough Shoal location was part of their own country's territory.

Despite the impasse, "we resolved to seek a diplomatic solution to the issue," Del Rosario told a news conference.

"Nobody will benefit if violence breaks out there," President Benigno Aquino III said.

The Philippine government said its navy tried to detain Chinese boats fishing in its waters, but was stopped by two Chinese surveillance craft. The Chinese Embassy accused the Philippine warship of harassing the fishermen.

The South China Sea is home to a myriad of competing territorial claims, most notably the Spratly Islands south of the shoal, that are believed to be in rich in oil and gas. The region is also prime fishing ground and one of the world's busiest sea lanes.

Both China and the Philippines flexed their muscles Wednesday. Del Rosario said that he warned China's ambassador that "if the Philippines is challenged, we are prepared to secure our sovereignty."

The Philippine navy was sending more vessels toward the shoal, which lies about 200 kilometers (120 miles) from the nearest Philippine coast, a Philippine navy official told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the situation with the media.

The United States said it was concerned by the increased tensions in the South China Sea. "We urge all parties to exercise full restraint and seek a diplomatic resolution," a State Department spokesperson said on customary condition of anonymity.

The standoff began Sunday when a Philippine navy surveillance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in a lagoon at Scarborough, the Philippine navy said. That prompted the military to deploy its largest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which was recently acquired from the United States.

On Tuesday, armed Filipino troops from the warship boarded the Chinese vessels for an inspection, finding large amounts of illegally collected coral, giant clams and live sharks inside the first boat. Del Rosario said the Chinese fishermen had been "engaged in illegal fishing and harvesting of endangered marine species."

The Filipino troops did not make any arrests and returned to the warship.

Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships later arrived and positioned themselves between the Philippine warship and the Chinese fishing vessels "thus preventing the arrests of the erring Chinese fishermen," the Philippine statement said.

The two Chinese ships told the Philippine warship by radio that it had intruded into Chinese territory and ordered it to leave. Philippine navy officials aboard the warship resisted, saying the area was not part of China's territory and well within Philippine territorial waters, the Philippine navy said.

"This resulted to the standoff which is still ongoing," the navy said.

The Chinese Embassy said the fishing boats had taken shelter from a storm in the lagoon, and that Philippine troops, including some who were armed, harassed the fishermen.

"Two Chinese marine surveillance ships are in this area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and interests," it said in a statement.

It said the shoal "is an integral part of the Chinese territory and the waters around it the traditional fishing area for Chinese fishermen."

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said China lodged a protest, saying the Philippines violated an agreement to maintain peace and stability in the region and prevent any escalation of disputes.

"We hope the Philippines can focus on China-Philippines friendship, peace and stability, and won't make new disturbances," Liu said.

Last year, the Philippines accused Chinese vessels of intruding into other parts of what it considers Philippine territory in the South China Sea. China has regularly dismissed the protests, saying Beijing has indisputable sovereignty over those areas on historical grounds.

The United States has insisted it takes no sides in the territorial dispute but says it should be solved peacefully. China has balked at what it considered U.S. interference in the region.

The disputes over the Spratlys have settled into an uneasy standoff since the last major clash involving China and Vietnam killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in 1988.

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Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski and Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Scott McDonald in Beijing and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.